” He is ready to separate the wheat from the chaff with the winnowing fork.” – Matthew 3:12

” Hell, I couldn’t coach frogs to jump.” – Hall of Fame quarterback Bobby Layne


Old Moses Mule is ready to separate the wheat from the chaff with his winnowing fork, or at least he might be using a fork to separate the spaghetti from the mashed potatoes and the chicken parmesan. As usual there are storm clouds hovering over the picnic as Commissioner Roger Goodell appears to have mishandled another disciplinary case. Last year it was Brady, this time it is the Elliott fiasco. It gives the likes of Skip Bayless, Colin Herd, and ESPN pundits something to chew on as the season draws neigh. No doubt more such missteps lurk on the horizon, so as the Mule masticates let’s get to the main meat of the column with the first predictions of the year and the occasionally comforting and perhaps even occasionally infuriating Mule Diet Pepsi 12-Pick.

The first shot heard round the league will be in New England with the red clad Kansas City Chiefs invading for the annual Thursday night opener. The Pats suffered a devastating blow losing reliable receiver Julian Edelman in a meaningless preseason game and the big question is who will step up to fill his spot. Belichick will have to pick from the pool of potential candidates and it will be interesting to see how well speedster Brandin Cooks integrates into the New England passing schemes.  The Chiefs incurred their own casualty setback with Spencer Ware hitting the injury list and they must turn to rookie Kareem Hunt to pick up the running slack. Kansas City has the defense to keep the Pats potent offense in check, but not enough offense of their own to spring an upset in visitor averse Foxboro. An intriguing kick off to what promises to be another topsy-turvy NFL campaign, and the edge goes to New England by 3.

NY Jets at Buffalo   The Scott McDermott era commences in Bills land and he gets an easy draw against the hapless Jets. Buffalo can ill afford to stumble against weaker foes as the schedule offers little in way of relief. The likely scenario is a Jets loss which will be the first ugly cut in a dismal season. Get out the beer cans and Bills banners, this one belongs to Buffalo by 8.

Philadelphia at Washington   The Eagles are starting to attract notice as a darkhorse threat in the NFC East and much depends on the development of Carson Wentz in his sophomore season as quarterback. I have confidence he will meet the test and continue to progress. I have less confidence in the game management skills of Doug Pederson. Fortunately owner Dan Snyder remains an unsettling force for the Skins. That is just enough of an edge for the guests, Philadelphia by 4.

Oakland at Tennessee   Another of the glamorous week one face- offs as the Raiders come hurtling into 2017 anxious to atone for their disappointing finish last year. Unfortunately they are quarreling with a team harboring equally high aspirations. The Titans believe their arsenal is well stocked for the long haul. Maybe the best game of the week and slice it as a razor thing edge to Tennessee at home, Titans by 1.

Arizona at Detroit   Not much wiggle room for mistakes in this spat either. The general sentiment is that the aging Cardinals are looking at a closing window as contenders. The Lions were the 2016 drama queens and need victories in contests like this to establish themselves as bona fide contenders themselves. Get them off to a good start, Detroit by 2.

Atlanta at Chicago   Finally a breather and an easy call. The Bears are in disarray while the Falcons are still smarting from that Super Bowl collapse. Start the hotseat clock for John Fox in Chicago, Atlanta by 12.

Pittsburgh at Cleveland   The Browns raise the 2017 curtain with the latest quarterback de jour, rookie DeShone Kizer. The Steelers aren’t exactly the most accommodating team for a youngster to get his first taste of NFL perils. The overhaul in Browns town gets off to a rocky start, Pittsburgh by 9.

Seattle at Green Bay   Two potential powerhouses that are expected to be in the postseason conversation. No love lost between these rivals that supply the best in dustups. Put them down for another hair-raising adventure with the home team getting the nod again, Packers by 1.

Carolina at San Francisco   The 49ers will need some time to fit their pieces together, and the Panthers are seeking some rebound elixir. Cam Newton gets to limber up his ailing frame but it won’t be easy. Expect a tussle that goes to Carolina by 5.

NY Giants at Dallas (Sunday night game)   I had originally predicted this as a Giants win but with the legal wrangling continuing in the Elliott case, the Cowboys receive an undeserved reprieve. His presence alters the dynamics considerably. The New York defense will keep it close but I am swinging my vote to Dallas by 2.

New Orleans at Minnesota (Monday night, 7:10 p.m.)   Adrian Peterson returns to Viking land wearing a different costume and is in for a rude reception. This is the classic dynamic offense vs. unyielding defense script. Defense gets the nod in this round, Minnesota by 2.

LA Chargers at Denver (Monday night, 10:30 p.m.)   Another Monday game where intruders will be donning new regalia as the Chargers make the trek from Los Angeles to visit long-time AFC foe Denver. It is also another on the strong offense vs. dominating defense menu and let’s go to that defense well again, Broncos by 6. 


COMEBACKS FOR THE AGES   In the 1960s, the best high school players from Texas used to travel to Pennsylvania to clash in a battle for high school football supremacy. Bobby Layne coached the Texas team and after one defeat, he made the above comment about not being able to coach frogs to jump. Now after UCLA mounted a stunning rally and overcame a 31 point second half deficit against Texas A/M to eke out a 45-44 victory, fans are saying the same thing (and worse) about Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin. One game into the season, one member of the college ruling body is calling for Sumlin’s head. Yes, they take their football seriously in the Lone Star State.

Another Texas team was also involved in an epic comeback at the Insight Bowl in Tempe in 2006. Texas Tech was trailing Minnesota 38-7 in the third quarter then staged five straight scoring drives to knot the score at 38. In overtime, the Gophers drew first blood with a field goal but Tech responded with a TD march to seal the 44-41 win.

NOT QUITE AS DRAMATIC BUT OF NOTE   The Tennessee-Georgia Tech game doesn’t rank among the great comebacks but the Vols did overcome a 14 point deficit in the final frame and nipped Georgia Tech 42-41 in overtime. What was striking is that Georgia rushed for 535 yards and had 655 yards in total offense, yet lost. They ran 96 offensive plays in the contest and still couldn’t nail down the victory. A blocked field goal attempt at the end of regulation foiled Tech’s attempt to put Tennessee away and spelled their doom.

And what better place to sabotage a betting line than Vegas itself? The Howard Bison were 45 point underdogs against U. Nevada Las Vegas but stirred the upset pot with a 43-40 win over the Rebels. It was the biggest point spread upset in college football history.

SOMEONE FIX THE DAMN THING   As indicated above, Ezekiel Elliott will be playing in the opener for the Cowboys against the Giants. This is because he was granted a temporary injunction in the discipline fiasco with Commissioner Roger Goodell. However, an arbiter has ruled that Elliott’s six game suspension still stands. Got that? He can play but then might not be playing. This will no doubt wind its way through the courts, much as the Brady saga did in prior years. On the larger screen, this is still another black eye for the NFL and it detracts from the excitement of the competition itself. There is a litany of such judicial and extra-judicial blights and it is high time the players’ association and commissioner’s office hammered out an acceptable process or submit it to some binding third party and just fix the damn thing.

The Mule has his meal fixed and getting these columns out may be a hit and miss proposition but he will deliver as able. And of course, we must have our concluding quote for the week. This one comes from seductive, bewitching Buffalo: ” Being a 31-year-old Bills fan is kind of like being a child star. You’re too young to grasp how exciting it is to be on top of the world, then the next thing you know, you’re in jail for stabbing strangers in a bar on Christmas.” – Bills fan, age 31




” You will never find a more entertainingly shitty team than these Chargers. They choke. They masturbate. They lose in downright erotic fashion.” – Drew Magary

” I’m four years sober and a Vikings fan – those things don’t feel remotely compatible.” – Minnesota Vikings fan

The Chargers were weary of finishing in last place in the AFC West while stationed in San Diego, so they have moved to Los Angeles (technically Costa Mesa) where they can also finish last. When the AFL was founded back in 1959-1960, L.A. was the original home of the Chargers. But it was a different Los Angeles then. It was a more assuring time when Joe Friday was after ” just the facts” in Dragnet and scantily clad youth were having fun, fun, fun in the warm California sun. Now here are some facts. The Chargers will temporarily reside in the StubHub Center where the seating capacity will be the smallest in the NFL at only 30,000.  It’s nothing but a goddamn soccer stadium and even the Chargers should be able to fill the 30,000 seats; particularly if they bring in all of Philip Rivers’ offspring and offer discount tickets to the Crips and the Bloods. The league is trying to spin the new venue as “intimate”, meaning the fans will be closer to Rivers and able to more clearly detect the scowl on his face when he squanders another lead with ego-driven turnovers. What it really means is that taxpayers are wising up and are no longer willing to be held hostage to billionaire owners who want subsidized facilities to host their franchise playthings. It may also portend a more disturbing trend. Despite all the hype about its success, the NFL is besieged with headaches on many fronts: concussion litigation, lower ratings, Kaepernick copycats; and recently, the franchise location shuffling signals a symptom of instability.

The Chargers join the Rams in L.A. who moved from St. Louis and to paraphrase a line from Billy Joel, ” had a ticket bought to the West Coast,” just rich kids moving their toys to a new playpen. In the case of the Chargers, Dean Spanos inherited the trinket from papa and has shown he is not up to the challenge of navigating the difficult NFL ownership terrain. They have won only nine games in the last two seasons and are in one of the most competitive divisions. Rivers is the face of the team and in 2016 he had the distinction of being number one – in interceptions with 21. You can just hear the L.A. fans chortling: ” Ooh ooh, let’s pay good money to see Phil throw picks. His are so much more untimely than Jeff Goff’s.”

To calm the turbulent waters for Rivers, Forrest Gump, sorry, Forrest Lamp was drafted to play guard, but it is lights out for Lamp already, he is gone for the season with an injury. First round pick, receiver Mike Williams joins him on the infirmary list as he is unavailable for an extended period due to a herniated disc. Fortunately they still have ample resources at that position. Melvin Gordon will spearhead the rushing attack and he is like a used car that runs for awhile and keeps breaking down. Ancient Antonio Gates, entering is 15th season, is one of the few parts that aren’t damaged and his next TD reception will make him the all time leader in that department for tight ends.

The defense led by Defensive Rookie of the Year Joey Bosa and right on through the ranks with Melvin Ingram at linebacker and Pro Bowl corner Casey Hayward, is sturdy on all fronts. Despite being packed with talent, there is some cause for consternation. Gus Bradley was rousted from the unemployment pile to run the defense. Now that’s a surefire way to impress the new fans, hire Gus Fucking Bradley, one of the worst coaches to ever throw a headset. Things may not go well in the new surroundings as the team marches to a new theme song: ” Costa Mesa here we come, almost where we started from.” 

There’s quite a gap between the Chargers and the next step up the West ladder in Denver. In marijuana-legal Mile High land, the smoking defense sets the tone. They have led the league in pass defense for the last two seasons thanks to stalwarts in the secondary like Aqib Taleb, who should learn to hush about the Patriots. But they are also built to harass quarterbacks with the likes of Von Miller, a flex linebacker style player who deserves the many superlatives he receives.

Clearly defense is not the concern. Offense is where the rodeo gets rocky. This has the ring of monotony league-wide: Who will play quarterback? Trevor Siemian handled most of the snaps last year but Paxton Lynch lurks in the wings. Siemian was pedestrian with 18 TD passes and 10 interceptions. Not bad, but the big problem was consistency. They mirrored the defense which forced a lot of three and outs then the Broncos offense would go lame and surrender the ball right back. Somehow Siemian must get the ball to first-rate receivers like Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders if Denver is to figure in the Wild Card mix.

Andy Reid aka ” the Walrus” is still at the helm in Kansas City and coming off a 12-4 season and division title. The Walrus has some newfound spring in his step but he still wrestles with the problem of a middle of the pack offense now saddled with a nagging quarterback issue. Aging Alex Smith seems like an affable chap who sacrifices his body for the Chiefs cause, but he is of the dink and dunk school of passing. Few mistakes and low on drama, enough to win but not to make the leap to Patriot and Steeler country.

Other than All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce, there is little glamour among the pass catchers, although speedster and return sensation Tyreek Hill is expected to man one of the wideout spots full time in the hopes he can generate some fireworks. The ground game is lackluster and it will probably be a committee effort with rookie Kareem Hunt likely to assume the lead role.

It is the defense that sets the tone for the Chiefs. They led the league in generating turnovers last year with 33, and they frequently convert the miscues into points instead of waiting around for the offense to capitalize. Eric Berry and Marcus Peters head a secondary that renders little maneuvering space for receivers , and when Justin Houston and Derrick Johnson are healthy, the linebackers augment a stingy line. Just on the strength of the defense this is a Wild Card team, if not more.

So many good teams in one division and the best of them all may be Oakland. It’s a safe bet that in the next few years they will inhabit Las Vegas, but for now the Raiders will make their assault on glory in their traditional home. They ride the arm of budding superstar Derek Carr and were a trendy favorite to take the measure of New England until one of Carr’s wheels came off, that’s right, he broke his leg and the offense crashed. It’s a sign of the times in the NFL that when you lose your starting quarterback, whole operations disintegrate. It has even happened to teams like the Browns and the Jets.

Carr has been repaired and early indications are that he is running on all cylinders and to complement his talent, surly Marshawn Lynch was coaxed out of retirement to provide some pop to the rushing attack. If he can regain his “Beast Mode” form from Seahawk days, Oakland will be menacing from multiple attack points. Two C’s equal an A in the receiving branch with Cooper and Crabtree who both exceeded 1,000 yards last year. They all operate behind an offensive line that featured three Pro Bowl heavyweights. The offense is an imposing force that even New England envies.

Scoring will not be scarce, however the defense was often tested and found wanting. It allowed a league-worst 6.1 yards per play. Oakland games resembled track meets. To mend the defects, the Raiders hired John Pagano to help Ken Norton Jr. manage the defense and he will no doubt find living in idyllic Oakland a refreshing change of pace from San Diego. To mount a pass rush he will need to harness contributions from more than Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack and his sidekick Bruce Irvin. The Raiders were last in sacks in 2016. The secondary was also rated in the lower quadrant and the first two rounds of the draft were devoted to attending deficiencies there. If this unit is even passable in 2017, it could be a banner year and the team might capture one more title in peaceful romantic Oakland before departing to sin-infested depraved Las Vegas.

The Bears were 3-13 last season and are doomed to finish last again in the NFC North. Jay Cutler left town and that was cause for jubilation, but only momentarily, they replaced him with untested Mike Glennon, at an eyebrow-raising cost of $ 45 million for three years. (He has thrown a mere eleven passes in the last two seasons.) Then to the bewilderment of everyone, general manager Ryan Pace went off the deep end and engineered a stupefying trade to select Mitchell Trubisky to train under Glennon; and needlessly paid a king’s ransom to do so.  Just to deflate expectations more, Chicago allowed their best receiver Alshon Jeffrey to escape so they will rely on Kevin White to assume the top wideout role. White is very fleet but has problems with shin splints, a fractured fibula and high ankle sprains, which somewhat hamper his acceleration. About the only thing not fractured on the offense is star back Jordan Howard who broke a Bears rookie rushing record with over 1300 yards, averaging 5.2 yards per carry. One suspects we will be seeing a great deal of him.

While the offense languishes, the defense will have to step it up a dozen or so notches. They managed a meager eight interceptions in 2016 and perhaps the philosophy was – Why bother getting the ball for the offense, they aren’t going to do anything with it anyway? Long gone are the glory days of Butkus and Singletary when the Bears were the ” Monsters of the Midway”, now the linebackers are a makeshift lot of cast-offs and repair projects who are weak on coverage and apply scant pass pressure. The defensive line led by Akeim Hicks is the only part of the unit that is combat ready but they may suffer battle fatigue from spending so much time at the front while the ailing offense sputters. No solace forthcoming on the schedule layout either, the first four games are against Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, and Green Bay. One might say coach John Fox will be on the hotseat and quickly.

While Fox wiggles his scorching ass, hearts will turn cold in Minnesota. Those stoic northerners of Scandinavian descent know better than to get too emotionally fired up about the Vikings; it will only beget disappointment. Last year was a case in point, they started 5-0 then missed the playoffs. That’s almost the stuff of Buffalo Bills tribulation. It was a collapse of epic proportions and residents in the Twin Cities became neurotic. One had a ready-made explanation for the nosedive: ” We have no fucking offensive line!”

That perceptive analysis evidently struck home with the front office. After using twelve different interior linemen including five left tackles, the intelligentsia didn’t want to sink in that drain again and opened the funding floodgates. Reiff and Remmers arrived via free agency, they sound like something that just escaped from a briar patch. Then early in the draft, highly regarded Ohio St. center Pat Elflein was chosen. Assuming holes get opened, the Vikes signed Latavius Murray and drafted Delvin Cook to carry the pigskin. Over $ 100 million has been invested on revamping the offense, one hopes the spending bonanza is justified.

Sam Bradford will be directing traffic again and will no doubt excel in delivering low-risk three yard passes. (He set an NFL record for completion percentage (71.6 %) and had only five interceptions.) Kyle Rudolph is a preferred target at the tight end spot and Minnesota has no real number one wide receiver. More like a couple of no. 2’s in Diggs and Thielen. If the line remains reasonably intact and the Vikings can sustain some drives, that may warm the hearts of fans, as the defense is of championship caliber.

Coach Mike Zimmer may be lacking when it comes to packaging a good offense but his defense thumps on people and creates havoc. It starts with superstar defensive end Everson Griffen and there is not a weak link in the whole chain. Linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks are very good and just seem to keep getting better and the secondary consists of two Pro Bowlers in Harrison Smith and Xavier Rhodes. They will keep the Vikings in striking range and expect a number of close games and don’t be surprised if an 10 or 11 win season is in the works, then again, don’t be surprised if they end up below .500.

The Detroit Lions seemed poised to secure a division title last year, then like the host city itself, the team endured calamity after calamity and ended the year with three straight losses. Then of course, they lost in the first round of the postseason and kept a tradition alive – they haven’t won a playoff game since 1991. But even with that setback, there was plenty of excitement in Detroit last year. Quarterback and soon-to-be immensely richer Matt Stafford led the team to a record eight fourth-quarter comeback wins with the help of receivers like Golden Tate and Marvin Jones Jr.  They love this kind of drama in Detroit. It breaks up the tedium of the city’s mundane milieu. Stafford’s titillating theatrics were manufactured with virtually no support from his backfield mates, the Lions were 30th in rushing last year.

Sooner or later the miracle water from the passing well will run dry, so much rides on the health of Ameer Abdullah who missed virtually the entire season and the Lions scrambled with fill-ins. Among them Theo Riddick acquitted himself quite well, more by catching passes out of the backfield than for ball carrying prowess. The ground game is the Achilles Heel of the offense and if it is inept again, look for trouble on the horizon.

Dysfunctional rushing will also strain a sub-par defense and the biggest lapses were on 3rd downs where Detroit was just plain awful. They allowed opponents to extend too many drives. The Lions were weak up front, at linebacker, and in the secondary. There are a lot of new faces in Detroit as the defense is undergoing a shake up. While all that gets sorted out, it is the offense and special teams (Matt Prader was 8-8 from 50 yards or more) that will keep the Lions in the Wild Card mix.

For the Packers – no defense, no problem. Until the playoffs when they got eviscerated by the Falcons, 42-21. That has been the pattern for awhile with Dom Capers guiding the defense. Unspeakable collapses have been the trademark of his tenure. Last year at least they were ragged for the entire duration, unable to contain the passing game. Green Bay hasn’t had a top five unit in scoring or total defense since 2010. General manager Ted Thompson is usually reticent about diving into the free agent market but crisis conditions prompted a flurry of activity on that front and the Pack had ten draft choices. The first four were devoted to defensive players with rounds one and two attending to the safety and cornerback needs. Ken King from Washington and Josh Jones from NC State are expected to immediately step in and plug some of those glaring pass defense holes.

But that is all still merely window dressing, the fate of the team still rides on the arm and legs of Aaron Rodgers. One can make a strong case that he is best quarterback in football. When the Packers needed him most down the stretch, he donned the Superman cape with 18 TDs and no interceptions, and a QB rating of 120 in the final seven games. If the match-up torment of trying to guard Adams, Cobb, and Nelson running their passing routes isn’t enough, one of the free agents Thompson acquired was tight end Martellus Bennett who is carrying his Super Bowl ring with him from New England. He just might get another in Titletown. The hope is that receiver converted to running back Ty Montgomery can stabilize the ground game to keep defenses honest, so Rodgers can keep foes quivering with the aerial attack.

Next week the first predictions for games in week one, but first a word from a Vikings fan: ” The Super Bowl takes place in Minnesota this year and I already know the Packers are going to win it. It’s cosmic law.” 

I do believe the man has it correct and here is how it is going to go down. Your division winners: AFC: New England, Pittsburgh, Tennessee, and Oakland. Wild Cards – Houston and Kansas City.

NFC is much tougher to call, particularly for the Wild Cards.  Division winners: NY Giants, Green Bay, Atlanta, Seattle. Wild Cards – Philadelphia, Minnesota.

AFC Championship: Oakland over Pittsburgh.

NFC Championship: Green Bay gets revenge against Atlanta.

Super Bowl: Green Bay over Oakland.






















ANOTHER SATURDAY NIGHT AND IN AN AWFUL WAY   Jim Smith is a 57-year-old Palmyra resident who attracted the attention of State Police on a Saturday night when he was observed zig-zagging and crossing the center line on Rte. 31. He was followed right into the driveway of his own home because he refused to acknowledge the flashing lights of the patrol car. At that point, officers also noted that Smith had an Unauthorized Inspection Sticker and based on his appearance, might also be intoxicated. Smith was disheveled, red-faced, had swollen cheek bones, and glazed bloodshot eyes. When he was ordered to submit to a breathalyzer, Smith belched and mumbled that he was tired and was heading to bed, and would catch up with the officers later. That did not deter the police who also discovered that juiced up Jimmy had two prior DWIs and did not have a license.

He was taken into custody and charged with Felony DWI, Felony Aggravated Unlicensed Operation in the First Degree, Refusal to Submit to a Breath Test, Failure to Yield to an Emergency Vehicle, Operating a Motor Vehicle Without a Required Interlock Device, Crossing the Center Line, and Unauthorized Inspection Sticker. The judge determined that Jimmy was a hazard on the highway and remanded him to jail with no bail, and there he sat on a Saturday night and in an awful way.

TREE INTERFERES WITH DRIVER   It was a Saturday night in Sodus on hazardous Lake Rd. with its dips and blind curves when a tree came out of nowhere and appeared in the path of 70-year-old Willie Wegman. Wet Willie was unable to avoid a collision with the stubborn tree but he recovered, then a few seconds later, amazingly, a suspicious acting road sign also disrupted his route and he crashed into that as well. By that time, busy State Police were racing to the scene but Willie refused to heed their presence and zoomed into his driveway and declared it to be a sanctuary from arrest. The officers did not agree with that interpretation and a BAC was administered which registered a modest .13 %, qualifying Wegman for a DWI. Additional charges included Failure to Yield the Right of Way to an Emergency Vehicle, Improper Speed, Moving from a Lane Unsafely, and Leaving the Scene of an Accident. Willie protested that the later charge was unfair because both the tree and road sign moved into his path and interfered with his driving and he intends to secure counsel and prove it. He will get an opportunity as he was given appearance tickets then released.

LYONS MAN SOUGHT BETTER CUISINE   It was early evening on Saturday when hungry Hector Lemus headed to Rochester for some fine Hispanic dining, unfortunately very busy State Police disrupted his culinary quest. He was stopped for transporting a passenger who did not have the seatbelt fastened. Hector breathed a sigh of relief and told the officer: ” Whew, just a seatbelt violation, I thought you were stopping me because of the cocaine I was carrying.” When asked to display it, Hector retrieved some small baggies of cocaine, total weight .7 grams. Needless to say, this led to a charge of Criminal Possession of a Controlled Substance.

The sad thing is, this could have all been averted. Hector claimed he was heading to Rochester to eat because he couldn’t find real Puerto Rican food in Lyons. That is an outlandish comment because there is a place right on Canal St. next to where the Mule lived that is owned by Puerto Ricans and they serve excellent Puerto Rican food. If he hadn’t been such a goddamned fool and tried to besmirch the good name of Lyons, he could have enjoyed his dinner and kept his cocaine too. As it was, his stash was confiscated but the judge released him because he didn’t want him to miss his evening meal.

ON THE ROAD AGAIN   Willie Henderson from Williamson is a 46-year-old who bears a resemblance to Willie Nelson, even wearing the trademark headband in emulation of the country music star. Williamson Willie was on the road again and stopped in the Burger King on Rte. 104. When he was at the take-out window, an employee observed that Henderson seemed intoxicated and instructed witless Willie to pull over and they would deliver his food. What they did was deliver a message to the State Police. They came racing to the scene and caught poor Willie right in the act of downing a beer. He was given the breathalyzer and scored a respectable .19 %, earning him an Aggravated DWI, along with an Open Container violation. Burger King did honor his food order but Willie had to delay the consumption. His stomach was grumbling all through the processing and he didn’t get to eat his cold Whopper until 2 a.m. Released with appearance tickets and having his hunger satiated, it was then time for Willie to go on the road again.

OFF THE ROAD AGAIN   Cormick Cantwell is homeless 34-year-old who has an odd fetish. He likes to try and hit pedestrians with his vehicle while they are walking along the road. In a recent episode in tranquil Walworth, one such potential victim was out ambling for an afternoon stroll and on came Cantwell. Witnesses became very excited and started shouting when they saw the fiendish predator close in on the target. The would-be victim seemed startled and even frightened and realized the only option was to leap into the roadside ditch. It was a narrow miss, then Cormick taunted his quarry and sped away. He did not get far because his license plates were noted and he was soon captured by a deputy and arrested for Reckless Endangerment. Bail was set at $ 750 and an Order of Protection was issued so Cantwell can’t attempt to kill that particular person again. So for now, Wayne Co. pedestrians are safe because Cormick is off the road again.

NO JAIL FOR JUDD   Dick Judd is a burly cross-eyed 42-year-old from Palmyra who specializes in domestic violence. Volatile Dick was doing his misdeeds again just after renouncing his sins at a Sunday service. Perhaps Judd’s judgment was impaired by alcohol consumption. It is unfair to speculate on such matters, but what we do know is he was involved in another physical altercation with his wife. This fracas transpired in front of two children. He was arrested for Assault and Endangering the Welfare of a Child, and in fact, it was one of the children who contacted 911. Dick admitted he sometimes acts impulsively but has now seen the error of his ways so he was released on his own recognizance.


” The Jets make the Knicks look like the Roman Empire.” – Jets fan who thinks the team is worse than the lousy Knicks

” The ” Juice”, O.J. Simpson is about to be a free man but I am still serving a life sentence as a Bills fan.” – Buffalo native who contemplates the injustices of life

Imagine you were creating the worst possible scenario for a sports fan, it may look something like this: A Jets fan from September until December; a Knicks fan from January through March; and a Mets fan from April through August. No amount of counseling or medication could ease the trauma. The Jets of course, compete … no, change that – they participate in the AFC East. It is pretty well accepted that a last place finish is inevitable, the only other issue is whether they will ring up 0-16 as an added frosting of humiliation.

Following last year’s 5-11 slumber, the team was eviscerated, just about anyone who remotely approached competence was axed. In all the flurry, Josh McCown limped into the headquarters, cane in hand and declared: ” I want to be your quarterback!” Short of other realistic options, the Jets said, ” Good deal.” McCown lacks functioning arms or legs and he can’t dance though he was born back in the Disco days of the 1970s; on the 4th of July no less. Don’t expect him to lead the Jets to independence, it will probably look more like George Washington’s hasty retreat from New York. An abysmal season beckons. McCown’s career record as a starter is 18-42. That’s right, he loses over two for every one he wins. Last year, he played for Cleveland and got abused and dunked in Lake Erie; it’s what Browns quarterbacks do. Anyway, if … rather when McCown gets mutilated and through groggy eyes sees the glistening blade of a surgeon, the choices become rather bleak. You have either Christian Hackenberg or Bryce Petty. Neither are remotely prepared for the rigorous demands of the position so the Jets must choose wisely.

All eyes except McGown’s are on faint-hearted Hackenberg. He was bagged by NY in the second round last year then the coaches wouldn’t let him anywhere near the field. They didn’t even trust him to hold a clipboard. For good reason, he has no business being in the NFL, he was awful in college. No one knows what the Jets saw in him, he wasn’t even on any other team’s board. But when you have a total horse’s ass like Woody Johnson owning a team, these kind of hiccups happen. The Jets relented this year and allowed Hack onto the practice field and he has been a mishap merchant in pre-season. Hackenberg has trouble organizing a huddle (truth) and misses badly with his passes and has not once but twice — struck sideline reporters with errant throws. If the media intends to cover this team, it might behoove them to wear protection, Hack has an uncanny knack of drilling them right in the testicles.

Not that it really matters. The NY media is annoying anyway and the quarterbacks really don’t have anyone of note on the receiving end. Their best option, Enunwa, just became lame and is out for the season. That leaves them with Robby Anderson, who was undrafted last year and would not make any other team but is now the Jets primary receiver. A less than dazzling running game is the only hope for the offense. Matt Forte came over from the Bears a year ago and fell well shy of projected output. He will share masochist duties with Bilal Powell, who will bash away to little or no effect.

After the offense, it goes downhill. The defense is a collection of retreads, rookies and malcontents; and staying true to form, the inconsistent special teams was downgraded to save money. If there is any saving grace, owner Woody Johnson will be out of the way because he was appointed by Trump to be ambassador to the United Kingdom.  If you see that the U.S. blunders into a war with Britain, there’s some history there, as the saying goes. Once upon a time the fertile Joe Kennedy, bootlegger extraordinaire was the ambassador. He was Irish, pro-Nazi and anti-English; the latter is synonymous with being Irish. He was called home to groom a son to be president and help fix elections. Then the insults were compounded because lately in the annual NFL games in England, we keep tormenting our ally by sending the Jaguars over there. And of course one year the Bills went with Rex Ryan acting like William the Conqueror. There was a suspicious food shortage while he was there and no conquest by the Bills either. The folks on that side of the pond are getting itchy to see what real American football looks like. Now with Woody on duty, it might be the tipping point. His mission will be to convince the Brits to close all their pubs, quit playing rugby, make friends with the Irish, abolish their national health care insurance and eliminate the budget for the Queen and Buckingham Palace. But Woody or no Woody, the Jets have been emasculated and will be a soft touch on the schedule.

Jay Cutler’s in town! That’s the big news in Miami. The tabloids won’t need to dig into the reserve pile for ” Buxom Blonde Abducted Near Marine Rescue Aquarium” or “Killer Shark Swallows Naked Mayor and Mistress Whole” sensationalism. The former Bears quarterback flop and almost broadcaster has been pressed into duty following the likely extinction of Ryan Tannehill. Cutler the drama queen will keep the press buzzing with his variety of innovative turnovers and tantrums. One fan was far from elated: ” We’ve gone from Tannehill to Cutler. Jesus Christ, what did Miami do to deserve this? Next thing you know the city will be overrun by foreigners and drug addicts.” 

Cutler, you might say, comes with baggage. Here are some observations from his time in Chicago: ” Gutless Cutler, poor excuse for an NFL quarterback, arrogant prick!!!” 

” Cutler really is the dark lord. The evil one. Voldemont … the red eye of the Lord of the Rings. I mean can someone get a stake and drive it through his heart? Please help ….”

You get the hint, Cutler was detested in Chicago, but Florida is the state of second chances. Just ask actor David Caruso. After his stint as a detective on NYPD expired, he saved his career on Miami CSI. And now Caruso can watch Cutler get 10 million dollars for a second chance to overthrow or underthrow talented receivers like Jarvis Landry and DeVante Parker, that’s of course when he isn’t fumbling, or pouting on the sideline while he massages his perpetually aching groin. Assuming Cutler isn’t the Second Coming of Dan Marino, swooping in to save the Dolphins, Miami does have a respectable line that run-blocks efficiently. Jay Ajayi made a leap into the bellcow role notching almost 1300 yards. That made fantasy owners salivate and now they will draft him prematurely this year.

They should be more cautious about snatching up the Miami defense. A fortune was wasted trying to mold it into a top flight unit and it still finished 29th in yards allowed. Teams ran at will, averaging over 140 yards a game. The front office did succeed in jettisoning some dead weight like Mario Williams, who reportedly is still trying to get his $ 685,000 engagement ring back from his former fiance’. Ndamukong Suh finally started paying some dividends on his huge contract by ranking third in tackles for a defensive lineman. Then again, when the opponent is running against you constantly, it is easier to pad the tackling stats. They will no doubt get plenty of opportunities again if Cutler stays true to course as a turnover vendor.

But at least you can stay warm while watching Miami lose, it could be worse, you could be in Buffalo and freeze your ass off as you witness your team implode. You all know the narrative: the Bills haven’t been in the playoffs since Christ wore roller skates, and every year is a rebuilding year. The new brain trust put a different spin on things this year, it’s not just rebuilding – it’s a fire sale ! After New England staged a raid during free agency (again) and scooped up the creme of the roster, the Bills went all out on the trading front. They were clever this time though. They waited until fans bought all the Sammy Watkins merchandise with the Bills logo on it, then traded Watkins (keeping one of his damaged feet as a souvenir). Ah yes, in Buffalo you can have your profit and pathos too. And they weren’t done. With their best cornerback pirated by the Pats, the Bills made sure the cupboard was bare by sending their next best pass defender to Philadelphia.

It’s probably unfair to new coach Sean McDermott that the shadow of Rex ” the Franchise Wrecker” Ryan lingers. (Same thing happened with Rex and Jets above.) McDermott is an Irishman like Joe Kennedy (either the Sean or the McDermott is a clue) who pulls no punches and Ryan’s country club atmosphere is being dismantled. For now, the intrepid Tyrod Taylor will be running the offense, but consider it an audition. The Bills are stockpiling early round draft choices and if Taylor doesn’t meet the standard or gets injured, expect to see him in Cleveland next.

Not all is gloomy in Buffalo. They still have one of the best running backs in the NFL in LeSean McCoy who is a dual threat with his shifty running style and ability to catch the ball (50 receptions). The offensive line is experienced and intact for a change. Tight end Charles Clay caught over 50 passes, an astonishing total by Buffalo standards, and there is hope that Jordan Matthews who was acquired in the trade with the Eagles can fill Watkins’ shoe (although he was hurt during his first hour as a Bill and his status is indefinite for the next three months or so), and free agent Anquan Boldin will add depth to the receiver ranks. The pieces are in place for a decent to even quality offense with much depending on the development of Taylor.

Now that the Ryans and their system are out the door, McDermott is introducing a daring new plan for the defense: tackle ball carriers and rush the passer. The front four led by Jerry Hughes is robust and capable of meeting those objectives. After that, the linebackers and the secondary are full of question marks. Free agents like Micah Hyde (from Green Bay) and rookies will have to fill the holes left by the massive departures. The schedule has a little bit of the “ouch” factor to it. They get to beat up on the Jets in the opener but after that it is rough sailing for a stretch: at Carolina, Denver home, then at Atlanta and Cincinnati, and back home against Tampa and Oakland. If they can sneak in a win or two against any of those six potential playoff teams, the second half is less lumpy other than the two games with New England. Don’t be surprised if the Bills mount a late season surge and level out at 8-8; but then again, that rebuilding project may not come to fruition until they get fortified with next year’s rich draft bounty.

The Patriots are expected to finish better than 8-8, and when it comes to a fan base, their spectators are clearly several cuts above the coarse rabble in Buffalo. Last year one of the drunken Buffalo riffraff threw a dildo on the field during the Patriots-Bills game. The upper crust of NFL fans who attend games in Foxboro conduct themselves according to the same high standards expected of the team. They are polite, intelligent and sophisticated and are rewarded for their efforts with an equally top shelf football team. It should be no different this year as Brady is showing no signs of slowing down at age 40 . If anything, it appears the defending Super Bowl champs are stronger than last year. Acquiring Brandin Cooks from the Saints brings a vertical threat to the passing game that was sorely lacking. Add him to Gronk, Edelman, and a backfield with multiple interchangeable parts and the offense shouldn’t miss a beat.

Because of the schedule rotation, New England will be facing a pack of premier quarterbacks. Carr, Ryan, and Brees are all on the schedule so returning to the AFC Championship is rife with pitfalls. One suspects that’s why they signed Gilmore from Buffalo to give a boost to an already experienced and talented secondary. Pressure on quarterbacks shouldn’t be a problem either as the defensive front is equipped to muster a pass rush and stop the run. Just in case, Belichick again seemed to be planning ahead and Kony Ealy was brought over in a trade from Carolina and out of the meager four choices permitted in the draft, two were defensive linemen.

If there are any weak links, it is the linebackers. Now this will surprise you, but when the Jets released veteran David Harris, the Pats were right on it and he didn’t even get to finish a bowel movement before he was inked to a contract. He should be a good addition as a role player. An opportunity presented itself – Belichick seized it.

Whether New England can weather the storm of a more demanding schedule and secure the valuable home field advantage spot in the playoffs is uncertain; however you can be certain they will win the AFC East, with Buffalo a distant second, followed by Miami, and the abominable Jets.

The Carolina Panthers of the NFC South play in Charlotte, N.C. which sportswriter Drew Magary described as ” a bank branch that someone made into a whole city.” The Panthers experienced one of the most stunning falls in football since the Giants went from the championship game in ’63 to last place the next year and Y.A. Tittle got his head cracked open. After going 15-1 and making a gallant Super Bowl effort, Carolina dropped to 6-10 last year. Their quarterback Cam Newton incurred a serious injury too, although it was a torn rotator cuff and not the ghastly iconic image of Tittle’s brains spilling onto the field. Y.A. certainly deserved better, he didn’t do dumb Subway commercials like Cam. Worse for Newton, he not only did the ads, he was actually foolish enough to try and stomach the food.

There is a lot of patter in pundit circles suggesting the Panthers can’t be that bad again. It’s enough to give you indigestion because they can and probably will. Relying on Newton is a fool’s errand, shoulder injuries are tricky and he is intent on making mad dashes to self-destruction. Jerry Richardson also showed he was worthy of the dumb owners’ club when he waited until July to fire general manager Dave Gettleman – after Gettleman did all the damage he could do. That included signing free agent tackle Matt Kalil to a monstrous five year deal despite Kalil suffering a major hip injury in 2016. Matt won’t exactly be joined at the hip to his sibling but close enough, older brother Ryan plays center on one of the worst lines in the NFL. They will be expected to try and protect Newton, a dubious cause indeed, and also open holes for Jonathan Stewart who was never speedy and now at 30 and well-pummeled, has lost a dozen steps or so.

They do have a gem in tight end Greg Olsen but the rest of the receivers are a junkyard of spare parts, although it is expected rookie Curtis Samuel will be an upgrade. The biggest hopes rest on Christian McCaffrey, a hybrid back/receiver from Stanford. Carolina is banking on McCaffrey to provide enough excitement at games to cause spectators to interrupt their NASCAR viewing on i-pads. Yes, the fans pay big money to come to football games so they can follow NASCAR.

Assuming linebacker Luke Kuechly can stay healthy for a whole campaign and assuming the 80 million spent on Kawann Short to stabilize the line pays off, that group might be respectable while riding the coattails of such high impact players. Elsewhere on that line, you may need a portable oxygen tent on the field for old demolition artist Julius Peppers and the rapidly aging Charles Johnson. The secondary is sub-standard so don’t hold your breath expecting many heroics from that quarter. This is a defense that may be a work in progress so the fans down in the Tarheel State best stick to NASCAR and wait for the college basketball season to start.

The libertine folks in Florida aren’t the patient types. A state long known for Spring Break, revelry, and unsavory sexual commerce featuring all sorts of indelicate variety, Florida is the very American image of instant gratification. They expect results immediately and that applies to football too. Tampa kicker Ben Aguayo just found that out the hard way. After a miserable 2016, then compounding his sins by missing a field goal and extra point in the first pre-season game, he was booted from the team. To ease his suffering he was promptly signed by the Bears where there will be no stress because they rarely get into scoring range anyway.

The Bucs don’t have a problem getting into the Red Zone, they have an offense that has some pop. Led by Jameis Winston who is coming into his own as a team leader, this is a powerhouse in the making. Mike Evans is one of the best receivers in the game and fleet but neurotic DeSean Jackson was snagged from the free agent pile. Brate and Howard are potent tight end threats and the only real question mark is the backfield where someone will have to fill Doug Martin’s shoes while he serves his PED enforced suspension.

So yes they can score but the flip side is stopping the opponents. No small stakes in a division where they face Ryan, Brees, and Newton each twice a year. Most of the resources were devoted to the offense leaving a lackluster defense without any backup parts. The secondary is threadbare, and the brightest spot anywhere on that side of scrimmage is new addition Chris Baker, a free agent from Washington who should provide some heft to a shaky line. By his own admission he enjoys dancing more than football. He and the rest of the outfit will have to step it up if the Bucs intend to improve on last year’s 9-7 mark and remain a viable Wild Card contender.

The Saints would love to see 9-7, they have been the inverse at 7-9 for three straight years and four of the last five. It seems almost like some kind of voodoo curse, they are doomed to be a 7-9 team. Maybe it’s not a curse after all, just a lousy defense. It was 27th ranked in 2016, that’s an improvement over when Rob Ryan was mismanaging it. Despite that less than impressive status, they were surprisingly gritty in short-yardage and goal-line situations. Beyond that there were too many breakdowns and not enough pressure on quarterbacks.

As for quarterbacks, New Orleans has one of the best of all time in Drew Brees. Even losing Brandin Cooks shouldn’t phase him, Michael Thomas and Willie Snead should satisfy the receiving needs. The backfield should be intriguing. Adrian Peterson is in the Big Easy and they already have Mark Ingram, and drafted Alvin Kamara from Tennessee. Exactly what in the hell all three of them are supposed to be doing while Brees bombs away is anybody’s guess? And if the defense falters, which is likely, the Saints will be often be playing from behind and even less inclined to run. It’s kind of like eating at one of those New Orleans buffets, just too many choices. Damn, the cuisine in that city is outstanding; the football team not so much. They will battle with Tampa for the second spot because the clear frontrunner is Atlanta.

Atlanta, the very peach of the South. Great football team and it is said Atlanta is so safe that you can park your car anywhere in the city, leave your keys in it all night, and it won’t be molested. No molesters in that metro marvel of merriment. When Christ returns for the Rapture, he is flying into their exciting airport to gather up the good Christians in Atlanta first before he swings over to morally unstained Texas to scoop up some more.

The Falcons were near the football equivalent of rapture when they led the Patriots 28-3 in the second half of the Super Bowl, then Brady donned his General Sherman cloak and rained fire on the feast. This led to a great deal of weeping and gnashing of teeth. But let the lamentations end, with Matt Ryan still the vital cog in the high-paced offense, the Falcons are back and fully geared for another visit to gridiron nirvana. Rarely does a quarterback have such a menu to choose from. There is Julio Jones who is in the conversation as among the best receivers in football. Anchoring the backfield is Devonta Freeman, also among the best at his trade. The tight ends are efficient and as a second receiver option, Sanu is too.

Dick Smith got fired as defensive coordinator after the Super Bowl meltdown although offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan was just as much to blame. Shanahan skipped town though and heads had to roll so Dick took the dive. Usually too much is made of all this coach shuffling as it is just moving some ass from one venue to another. And for a defense like Atlanta’s, the pieces are pretty much in place other than a tweak here and there. It’s a reasonably sound group and free agent Dontari Poe is one of the few new faces. His 330 pound frame will help shoo inside runners away and Takkarist McKinley comes out of UCLA to swear during televised speeches and abet the pass rush.

Opposing coaches will be swearing as they try to find a way to contain the very powerful Falcons. They are an exceptionally strong team that has its eyes on returning to the big show to erase last year’s embarrassing second half collapse against the Pats. There is one major obstacle in their path in the NFC and that is Green Bay. Let me close by sharing the view of an even-tempered Atlanta fan about the Packers: ” Fuck the Packers, and fuck all the Packer fans too!” 




” The Browns are on the clock, we’ll get them next millennium.” – Cleveland fan who doesn’t think the team has good short-term prospects

” Jacksonville is only associated with an anonymous, yet consistently atrocious football team – fitting for an anonymous, yet consistently atrocious city.” – anonymous fan who has low opinion of the Jaguars and city of Jacksonville

There is upheaval in Cleveland. The Browns who started 2016 with a fourteen game losing streak and finished with a somewhat disappointing 1-15 record have made sweeping personnel changes. Four of last year’s five starting quarterbacks are gone. The lone remaining survivor is Cody Kessler who was injured throwing the ball – backwards – for a safety. That’s right, they may have to pin their hopes on someone who is directionally challenged. Then again they did sign the “Big Mistake” . Six-foot eight-inch Brock Osweiler was foolishly given a gigantic contract in Houston, and almost immediately the Texans expressed buyer’s remorse. Enter the Browns to relieve them of their anguish and the responsibility for payments. Yes, the Browns had plenty of salary cap surplus so the cadre of quacks running things decided: ” Let’s do a fun thing with all the extra money, let’s squander it on fucking useless Brock Osweiler.” The acquisition may not be entirely a bad thing, especially for those of macabre leanings who enjoy seeing a high-priced goat sacrificed at the altar of the Cleveland offensive line.

Acting on the solid assumption that Osweiler and Kessler flounder, the Browns will turn to a rookie quarterback. DeShone Kizer was taken in the second round when the front office found out his college coach said he wasn’t ready. Kizer does have a problem with his mechanics and judgment and performed poorly in stressful game situations, but then again when discussing Cleveland quarterbacks, don’t they all? What the hell though, he is from Notre Dame and it will be refreshing to have someone running the huddle who can recite the alphabet.

While the offense languishes, the defense will have to compensate. A hefty portion of draft choices were devoted to aiding the cause. The very first pick in the 2017 draft was defensive end Myles Garrett and very predictably he was injured in his first practice. Next up was Jabrill Peppers, who failed a drug test. Then there was Caleb Brantley, who fortunately was finally cleared of domestic violence charges, but the Browns weren’t confident of that when he was chosen. A little dose of a down-to-the-wire Law and Order style drama titillates the Browns fan base. Just to make sure the ongoing wreck remains dysfunctional, Gregg Williams was hired as defensive coordinator. That’s just one step above employing Rob or Rex Ryan. If the whole unit disintegrates, it’s still not cause for despair. Even Belichick failed in Cleveland.

There is a story, probably apocryphal, then again maybe not, that a husband brought his new baby a set of clothes with a Browns logo on them. His wife started screaming and threw him out of the house, then filed for divorce for Endangering the Welfare of a Child. That about sums up the turmoil and futility of the Browns. They haven’t won an opening game in thirteen years and start out on the wrong foot this year by hosting the Steelers in the opening week.

The Ravens aren’t in much better shape. Quarterback Joe Flacco is injured, which has led people to float the forbidden “K” word – Kaepernick. There has been some speculation that the Ravens might sign the political outcast as a stopgap measure until Flacco returns. The plan was nixed when fears surfaced that it may spark outrage and disorder in Baltimore. As if anyone would notice anything unusual about that. All this in a city that once had Johnny Unitas as its most iconic sports figure.

The casualty list in Baltimore is staggering, on the football field, of course. Eight players were carted away in the first two days of practice, some of them with season ending injuries. And this doesn’t even count losing key parts like running back Kenneth Dixon in the earlier optional workouts. If this had happened in 1815, Baltimore would have fallen, Francis Scott Key would have never written the national anthem, that would have spared pre-game singers from forgetting the words and butchering the vocals, the British would have won, and we would all have national health insurance.

It seems almost as if Baltimore has been cursed. The wreckage is accumulating and there is talk that if the Ravens persist in piling up the calamities, competent compassionate congressman may be called in to quickly pass legislation to remedy the problem. The worst case scenario is of course the possibility that the Browns may overtake them. If things become that grave, don’t expect the residents to take it calmly, Baltimore could erupt into chaos.

Cincinnati may end up in the runner-up spot by default. The Bengals are the very definition of mediocrity. They were 6-9-1 last year, missing the playoffs for the first time since 2011. They seemed almost relieved there was no humiliating one stop and out in the higher stakes competition. They should do better in the victory column this year if tight end Eifert is available from the first snap and A.J. Green rebounds from a sub-par year. They hope to get some help from rookie John Ross who ran the fastest 40 ever at the over-hyped Combine evaluations. True to form, the Bengals drafted a player of suspect character when they took Joe Mixon, another in a long string of Oklahoma felons. Mixon is expected to untangle some of the makeshift running back clutter and reportedly is being mentored by Pacman Jones on the finer points of professional demeanor. That is tantamount to putting Al Capone in charge of training bank clerks.

The offensive line faltered badly last year and Cincinnati is trying to plug the holes with retreads and moving an awful right tackle over to the critical left tackle spot to protect Andy Dalton’s backside. The ringmaster for the whole circus is undistinguished Andy Dalton. He is just good enough that the coaches don’t go chasing shopworn replacements like Ryan Fitzpatrick, and just bad enough to keep the Bengals stagnant.

The defense was the strength of the team last year and figures to be again when aforementioned Pacman Jones finishes his annual suspension and if volatile Vontaze Burfick can desist from accumulating cheap shot penalties. Burfick is already in mid-season form as he is trying to cripple running backs on his own team. The trademark of the Bengals has been mediocrity and a lack of discipline under coach Marvin Lewis. That will never take them to the next level in trying to overcome a powerhouse like the Steelers.

There are two major questions when dealing with the Steelers. Of paramount importance is the durability of QB Ben Roethlisberger. Can he survive an entire season with his increasingly battered body? If the answer is yes, then that triggers the second question: How far will Pittsburgh go in the postseason? That they will win the AFC North is all but conceded but they haven’t captured an AFC championship in six years and it was eight years ago they hoisted the Super Bowl trophy. The Patriots have been their primary nemesis. Indeed it is said that when someone even mentions the Patriots it is a trigger for folks in the Steel City to reach for a drink.

Unlike the glory years of prior decades when teams trembled in the face of the “Steel Curtain”, the modern incarnation of the Steelers is geared to an explosive offense featuring Roethlisberger and the the three B’s: Bell, Brown, and Bryant. A contract dispute has delayed the arrival of Le’Veon Bell to training camp and that bears watching, but assuming it is resolved, he is among the most versatile multi-purpose backs in the game. Antonio Brown is hailed as the best receiver in football and rightly so. His spectacular receptions are reminiscent of another Pittsburgh Hall of Famer – Lynn Swann. Brown should have plenty of operating room if Matavis Bryant returns with his blistering speed. Bryant is waiting for his suspension to be lifted. He has pledged fealty to his Highness Roger Goodell and declared that Goodell is the greatest monarch since syphilitic Henry VIII. Goodell loves the flattery and comparison but has yet to indicate whether Bryant will be decapitated or merely castrated. Should Bryant remain indisposed there are plenty of options as Pittsburgh is deep at the position.

With an offense like that, the defense only has to be adequate, and though there were some holes in the secondary and untimely meltdowns against the run, the overall prognosis is on the plus side. It was by and large a young defense that got hit with the injury bug. One of the expected bright spots is first round pick T.J. Watt, younger brother of the more luminous J.J. Watt. He is another asset in an already respectable linebacker group. There are no conspicuous shortcomings anywhere else. Overall they should meet the standard of adequate and it is time for the Steelers to end the championship drought and put a stop to the New England stampede.

The AFC North belongs to the Steelers with everyone else fighting for the scraps of second place but no Wild Card.

Making the trek below the Mason-Dixon Line, we turn to the AFC South. Every year you hear that it is time for the Jaguars to shed their losing skin and every year becomes an exercise in futility. Last year they checked out at 3-13 and have lost 11 or more games for six straight years. Jacksonville is so bad the league won’t even televise them on the throwaway Thursday night games any more. And forget the major prime time Sunday and Monday Night games, Carrie Underwood threatened to strip her ties with NBC if she had to sing the intro with the Jaguars in it. They are a cesspool onto themselves in a city that is the very image of cesspools.

It’s not that the Jags don’t have some weapons. They have a decent 1-2-3 punch for receivers with Robinson, Hurns, and Lee. The problem is they have goddamn Blake Bortles as quarterback. He’s a turnover machine – 16 interceptions and 6 lost fumbles last year; 51 interceptions in his last 46 games. With Cutler now over in Miami and Bortles in Jacksonville, the ” Sunshine State” may change its name to the ” Boner State.”

The bad news doesn’t cease with Bortles’s boners. Doug Marrone is head coach. Yes, bonehead Marrone, who defected from Buffalo (Why would anyone want to flee Buffalo?) and quickly assimilated into Jaguar culture by doing a piss-poor job as offensive line coach. That earned him a promotion to the top job. When he finishes failing at that, he should have the inside track to be the state governor.

Don’t expect the defense to mitigate the suffering. They were last in interceptions in the NFL in 2016, and 19th in sacks. To wit, the Jags not only cough it up, they can’t get it back. But with all that, there is some light at the front of the tunnel. First round draft choice Leonard Fournette from LSU will be called on to shift the burden from Bortles to the ground game. If he even approaches the glitter of the press clippings, it may relieve pressure on both Bortles and the defense. One other variable works in Jacksonville’s favor: the Colts may be worse.

At one time, when Peyton Manning was creating new ceilings for passing records, Indianapolis was defined by its offense. Now this may be blasphemous in some Hoosier country circles, but the tide has shifted and the defense may have to carry the team. That is partly by design and partly by bad luck. After enduring 41 sacks in 2016, Andrew Luck decided it was time to reattach his arm and shoulder to the rest of his body. He is recovering from torn labrum surgery and after the initial unduly optimistic projections that he would be ready by opening day, a chill has descended on the city that originally made Oscar Robertson famous. (The Mule once walked by Crispus Attucks High School and announced to his companions – ” That is where Oscar Robertson went to high school.”  He also went by the cemetery where John Dillinger is buried and said: ” That is where John Dillinger is buried. He is dead and buried in cement so he doesn’t get out. They blew his ass away, fucker never had a fighting chance.”) And now it appears Luck will not be ready for the first game, and in fact probably won’t suit up until mid-season, so the Colts don’t have a chance either. It means perennial back up Scott Tolzien will be the new signal caller. It also means that Chuck Pagano, who barely kept the head coaching job last year, is now really in deep shit and will be gone by the time Luck does fasten his helmet and gets slammed to the turf for the first time in 2017.

Expect to see a lot of Frank Gore while Luck mends. The 34-year-old has managed to sneak into the 8th spot on the all-time rushing list, and if he can duplicate last year’s 1,000 yard effort he will vault to fourth. While he tries to keep the offense in tolerable shape, the defense will have to make a leap in progress. Their best player is nose tackle Al Woods who works on a cattle farm part time. That makes him perfect for Indianapolis which is nothing but an overgrown cow town anyway.  They were 30th ranked a year ago so new GM Chris Ballard signed a flock of free agents and went heavy in the draft for secondary help. That includes a high-priced Hooker. Not the kind that used to ply their trade near the famous speedway, but an imported Ohio St. Hooker, named Malik, their first round draft choice. Whew, as they say, ” Lay back and enjoy it, it should be an interesting season.”

Texas is an interesting place. No doubt it has changed a great deal since I lived in Houston in the late 70s. The whole state was madcap and daft in those days. It was flush with corrupt politicians, flaky right-wingers, Nazis and Klansmen. The state or independent republic or whatever they fancy themselves has always been replete with righteous Christian folk who say heartfelt pre-meal prayers, thanking God and evangelist Joel Osteen for their prosperity, the invention of the AK-47, and all the poor who deserve to suffer because of inadequate health care. And there is no place that loves their football more than Texas. Right from kindergarten until they graduate from grammar school at age 16, the youngsters are reared in the Lone Star football fanatic tradition.

There is no fear of ever banning football because of concussions in Texas, it is a place where brain damage is considered a good thing. Bush II was governor there and they have been a solid Red State for years. There is even a fantasy team named ” Houston, We have a Problem.” It is a problem that has a familiar ring to it around the NFL – lack of a reliable quarterback. While rookie Deshaun Watson is being groomed for the starting job, Tom Savage will direct traffic at the outset. He is underwhelming to say the least. He has still never thrown a TD pass and is the team’s fifth different starting quarterback in as many seasons. Despite that, the team has been able to string together three consecutive seasons of 9-7 records; two of them resulting in division titles. Hardly a laudatory statement about the quality of the AFC South.

Houston runs the ball more than any other team and for good reason: they can’t throw it. It’s not for lack of trying that Savage has never connected on a paydirt delivery, he has a strong arm but is just not accurate. In other words, if you wanted to do a cross-sport trade and send him to the Mets, he would feel right at home. He even has one of the league’s best receivers in DeAndre Hopkins, but defenses can gang up on Hopkins as the rest of the group is about as effective as the state mandated abstinence only instruction. Once those frisky little Texas lasses like Bobbie Jo or Peggy Sue hit about third grade, all bets are off.

But you can bet on the defense, it was the best in the NFL; and that was with J.J. Watt injured for much of the year. He’s back though the mammoth Vince Wilfork did retire and the team’s food bill was cut in half,  but that is hardly a blimp on the screen, the return of Watt more than compensates. The linebackers led by Brian Cushing are as good as any foursome in the league, and the secondary is bulging with talent and reserve strength. Even with a flawed offense this unit will keep the Texans in contention for at least a Wild Card.

Here is one of the most significant Mule edicts for the forthcoming season: Remember the TitansTennessee hasn’t seen this many weapons since Andrew Jackson ran the state militia. It all starts at quarterback with Marcus Mariota who is now in the conversation about best quarterbacks in the league. He can throw, he can run, and he is even smarter than some of the analysts on ESPN. The receiving ranks were a little light last year but the Titans buttressed that flank in the draft and added free agent Eric Decker who is elated to be free from the Jets. There is also Delanie Walker, a Pro Bowl tight end. The backfield consists of two workhorse backs in Murray and Henry. Bring on the Steelers and the Pats, this team can win a shootout with anyone.

If there is any smudge on the team make-up it is the secondary which got blistered last year. Logan Ryan was cut loose from New England so Tennessee scooped him up to fill one safety spot, and a first-round pick with the unusual name of Adoree’ Jackson will man the other safety position. The name Jackson carries some meat in the Nashville neighborhood. The line is capable and the linebackers are aggressive and cover a lot of ground. Even the special teams compare favorably with the best in the conference and they added an explosive Weems to the return unit. Tennessee is a team that has made significant strides and looks to continue on the upward arc.

This could be a banner year – Remember the Titans. But don’t forget the Texans, after that is a toss-up between Indianapolis and Jacksonville.

The Mule has to remember to eat and he is going to practice for regular season meals by going on the light side with some chicken parmesan, spaghetti, potato salad, sugar-free chocolate fudge, and the required Diet Pepsi. And for your consumption, the closing quote of the week:  ” Osweiler has no future and no present in Cleveland, and for that matter is not desired anywhere in the NFL. Which of course is why he ended up in Cleveland.” – Browns fan who has a low opinion of Brock ” The Big Mistake” Osweiler 


” I miss football a ton.” – Johnny Manziel

” Napoleon had a Jerry Jones complex.”  – fan who thinks the Cowboys owner has a big ego

Manziel’s claims should be regarded as suspect. He was intoxicated most of the time he played so he wasn’t in position to make a sound judgment, and it was the Browns, which might not actually qualify as football. But while the freewheeling drunken, woman abusing former quarterback remains in exile, at least he will not be alone. There are a number of Dallas Cowboys already scratched from the starting gate and unless Jerry Jones can exert some pressure on Emperor Goodell, more will and should follow.

Now to be fair, Dallas was not unique in having players commit transgressions in the off-season but the franchise certainly claimed the lion’s share of negative publicity. Lawlessness and lack of civil comportment are a stock part of the Jones/Cowboys culture. The deluge of police reports created so much chaos the front office couldn’t keep the perpetrators and accusations straight. One poor victim, “Lucky” Whitehead was unjustly furloughed and ended up with the goddamn Jets. That might be cause for discarding that ” Lucky” moniker.

But whether you are Johnny Manziel or suffer the indignity of being a Cowboys or Jets fan, or a football-starved fanatic from the masses, the panacea is pending – the camps are open and the pre-season beckons. In the college ranks, student-athletes from the likes of Alabama and Florida St. stand in line to be issued their textbooks. At those institutions one conjectures that the repositories of knowledge will remain unmolested for the duration of the season. And you know the old saying: ” Fastest Seminole in the 40 gets a free pass on the next felony.” As for the pros: the lawyers, agents, and representatives of the justice system ink the final details of parole terms, allowing the players to inhale the fresh air of freedom as they swarm to the practice fields. Let the season and the Mule begin.

I will start my new string of prediction infallibility in the competitive NFC East. If the Cowboys hope to repeat, they must navigate a difficult early season schedule which includes the opener at home against the Giants, then trips to Denver and Arizona, and a fifth week contest against Green Bay. A treacherous route that may be maneuvered with a suspension to star running back Zeke Elliott looming, and much of their defense attending group therapy while serving their league or court imposed sanctions. There is not a lot of breathing room in the second half either, as they are on the road to Atlanta and Oakland and host a late season game against the Seahawks. Owner Jerry Jones has made it clear that regardless of the outcome, his main goal is to make his players better citizens, morally unsullied monogamous Christian men like himself, and that he will dodge the media limelight as he wants focus to be on the team and their accomplishments on the field.

The Giants are the favorite to unseat Dallas as they feature a crack defense and have reinforced an already dangerous receiving corps. Adding Brandon Marshall to the cast of Beckham Jr. and Shepard gives aging Eli Manning a nice blend of targets. NY even went all in for offense with their first pick by drafting Evan Engram, a big fast, flex type tight end from Mississippi. From the delta to the den of iniquity, if you will. The match-up advantages are definitely favorable for the Giants but the question remains whether Manning can still perform at an acceptable level and not make abominable mistakes in judgment, particularly in Red Zone situations. And will he actually throw the ball to a tight end? He prefers to ignore them for more glorious long-range highlight shots. There is some consternation when evaluating the offensive line, they can’t run-block (NY had among the league’s worst rushing attacks in 2016) and they were downright shoddy in pass protection last year. Eli compounds the problem as he is notoriously sloth-footed and no self-respecting turtle would lose a foot race to him. The Giants hope to patch up the problems on that front and open some holes for Paul Perkins. If they achieve that, it could be a banner year for the unseemly herd of fans on the lower end of the food chain who inhabit downstate New York.

The Redskins are one of the mystery teams entering this year’s fray. They jettisoned productive receivers then imported potentially productive receivers. Washington D. C. is a city that thrives on potential: potential scandals, potential corruption, and in rare cases – potentially productive legislation. The Skins are certainly more perplexing than a health care bill. They were already bursting with backs then drafted another. It makes one wonder if Dan Snyder is pulling the strings behind the scenes. It is not every day you have an owner that makes Jerry Jones seem humble; Snyder succeeds.

On the upside, the strength of the team is the offensive line. Whatever back they pick out of the hat should have holes for the taking. As for those receivers mentioned above, Terrelle Pryor was snagged from the Browns. He was Cleveland’s best receiver last year; alas, he was also their best quarterback. That’s right – the Browns built their offense around a player throwing the ball to himself. He won’t have to do that in Washington, they have Kirk Cousins to handle the delivery part. Now mind you, Cousins doesn’t want to be in Washington and basically said so – ” Get me out of here.” In that respect he mimicked many people in the Trump administration. But Dan Snyder wouldn’t let him flee and applied the old franchise tag trick to keep Cousins in the fold.

You have an offense that could range anywhere from respectable to revolting but it is defense that is the major source of concern. They spent a lobbyist’s bag of money on Josh Norman last year then put him in a Witness Protection Program and wouldn’t let him guard the opponents’ best receivers. He went from the front page to obscurity. It is tough nowadays in the nation’s capital: They name a street after a man one day, then chase him down the same street the next day. There are also high expectations for linebacker Junior Galette. Now one might inquire – ” Who in the hell is Junior Galette?” A valid question because Junior never played a down in the NFL during his first two years. Junior has been hampered by injuries and those nuisance off-field legal tangles. The Redskins rewarded him for his absence by signing him for another year because he is working himself into shape to play.  Coach Jay Gruden was impressed with the progress: ” He can bend.” Gruden added he was waiting for Junior to ” get that burst back.” Meaning he can sprint from the sidelines onto the playing field without having a body part become detached. There you have it, the Redskins fate hangs on Josh and Junior, not a solid hinge for glowing optimism.

Leave us not forget the Philadelphia Eagles. This is a team that has missed the playoffs three years in a row and one might say they have a lot of work to do. The offense went backwards in 2016 in points and yards gained so they retained offensive coordinator Frank Reich to steer the ship again. Part of the slump was no doubt attributed to having rookie quarterback Carson Wentz learn how to absorb 33 sacks and multiple excruciating painful hits. Another glaring deficiency was on the receiving end, when Wentz did manage to stay upright and sling it, there was no one who could catch it. Philly fans, who are known as the most diplomatic and courteous in sports, will politely tell you that is no way to run an offense – “You must find someone who can catch the damn ball ! It’s not political science and trying to write a Constitution, it’s football.”

The powers-that-be got the message and grabbed Alshon Jeffrey and Torrey Smith to bolster the receiving ranks and when some line bashing is in order, they added LaGarrette Blount for short yardage running duties. That may provide Wentz the relief he needs and he does work behind a respectable line. The Eagles offense is fixed, no more worries there.

The defense is a little more problematic. After all, not everything is always rosy in Philadelphia; ergo, watch the Phillies some time. The secondary could lead to the downfall of an otherwise respectable unit. They do have Malcolm Jenkins but he can’t cover everyone. Rookies will have to fill key corner spots and if they are not combat ready then the pass rush will have to improve to relieve the pressure. Overall the schedule is about middle level difficulty so if the Eagles can win the games they should win and steal one or two against upper tier foes, they could flip last year’s 7-9 record and stay in the hunt for a playoff spot for the duration. Which of course will make their patient fans very happy.

Take this to the bank: The Giants will win the division, the Cowboys will slip to second and battle the Eagles for a Wild Card, while the Redskins flounder in the cellar.

That was the tough division so now it is time to lower the stress and cognitive levels and switch to an easy one – the NFC West. We haven’t even started preseason and two times are eliminated. That would be one of those roving L.A. teams as in the Rams, and of course the 49ers. The Cowboys may be the poster child for league criminality but the 49ers aren’t far behind and if you wanted an All Decade Arrest Team, San Francisco or Santa Clara or whatever they are now, gets the edge. Hell, Ray McDonald and Aldon Smith chalked up a half-dozen between them and then the franchise instituted reforms and Tramaine Brock checked in with the first felony under the new Lynch/Shanahan regime.

Not to be snarky but as bad as the players are, the fans are even worse. As one spectator observed: “With a little work, the 49ers might be as aggressive and violent as their fans.” Those cars you see in San Francisco or Santa Clara that are on sale at a big discount, are best avoided, they come with blood on someone’s hands. They belonged to some unsuspecting dolt who was stabbed in the stadium parking lot. The cars are stolen. Give the front office some credit, they have tried to clean up the image. They fired the feisty Brock right after he threw his first dozen punches in domestic incidents and they are committed to beefing up security at Levi’s Stadium. Local police wouldn’t touch that project, too hazardous they claimed, give us duty on gang turf in Compton or L.A. any time. To control the rabid 49ers fans you need the Navy SEALS. Oh they have the gangs at the stadium too, they lurk near the rest rooms and just when people are about to relieve a near bursting bladder after an hour wait in line – BOOM – the hooligans pounce and assault when straining victims are most vulnerable. Okay, so the parking lot and the rest rooms aren’t safe and neither is the field, they keep re-sodding it. But I have exhausted the supply of finding good things to say about the 49ers, let’s move on to the real bad stuff.

The short term success on the field rests in the hands of QB Brian Hoyer. That’s not good, he couldn’t make it in Cleveland. He was replaced by Johnny Manziel, pre-rehab days. If … no … when Hoyer falters, Matt Barkley will step up. He was once behind Matt Sanchez on the Eagles depth chart and it was claimed that old Butt-Fumble was the better athlete of the two. Not exactly a ringing endorsement. Barkley followed Hoyer to Chicago where Hoyer broke his arm and Barkley then threw interceptions. Okay, you get the idea, the Niners aren’t going to throw the ball. They might have Carlos Hyde run it, but then again they may not. He injured his shoulder and MCL last year and has missed 14 games in three years. Not a real Fantasy highlight reel, you might say.  That means the rushing chores will likely be absorbed by rookie Joe Williams, who will have to do a lot of running, he can’t block and can’t catch and tends to let the ball slip from his grasp.

That’s the offense in a nutshell. The defense has to get better. Well, maybe it doesn’t but San Francisco was the worst defense against the rush last year, so the law of averages would seem to be in their favor. They weren’t nearly as bad against the pass, for the simple reason that teams didn’t need to pass against them when they averaged nearly five yards a carry. The new intelligentsia of Shanahan/Lynch showed some wisdom in drafting Solomon Thomas in hopes of stabilizing the defensive front. Put SF in the overhauling category and better times should be ahead after a good draft and some seemingly prudent free agent acquisitions. They dropped 13 in a row in one stretch last season and the average loss the past two years has been by double digits. Despite all that and all the woes, they aren’t even the worst team in the division.

Those honors fall to the Los Angeles Rams. They finally got rid of inflexible mulish Jeff Fisher and replaced him with Sean McVay, who at 31 will be the youngest head coach in NFL history. He’ll inherit a team that was last in yards per game, first in allowing sacks, and has a second year quarterback (Jared Goff) who was completely bewildered and scrambling for his life from his very first snap. Even the running game regressed. Experts say those things have to be remedied. Some measures were taken to do so. McVay came up with a nifty plan to bring in some better offensive linemen. That never occurred to Fisher who thought you could stack the defense and win 0-0. Those linemen have a mission: block somebody so the defense doesn’t body slam poor Goff a dozen times a game, and give the once highly touted running back Gurley some room to ramble.

The defensive front seven remains stacked, however the secondary will be prone to problems. Wade Phillips was brought in as defensive coordinator. Wade is of course part of the NFL’s good ole boy network that keeps out-of-style people employed well past their usefulness. Greg Williams is another who comes to mind. As for Wade, Buffalo fans will fondly recall his years there with the somewhat tepid press conferences when the Bills would fumble five times and Wade would blame it on the ground. Wade also stopped in Dallas and Denver, then heard the call – ” Go West, old man.” So he’s in L.A. and the next stop will be coaching Mongols in the Gobi Desert. Maybe they will fit his scheme, the Rams don’t. Wade wants to play with his corners tight and employing a pressing man technique as he converts the defense to a 3-4; but unfortunately he has personnel that is ill-suited for the design. Expect another year or two of wandering in the desert before the Rams enjoy the manna of winning for famished fans.

Meanwhile, nearby in another actual desert are the Arizona Cardinals. Cast as possible Super Bowl contenders in 2016 they slumped to a disappointing 7-8-1 and some of the key pieces moved a step closer to the retirement banquet. Quarterback Carson Palmer is 38 but could easily pass for 58. He has endured a great deal of punishment during his tenure which makes it all the more perplexing why Bruce Arians keeps insisting Palmer take deep drops. The creaky old punching bag is exhausted by the time he is in position to launch. There is certainly a talented corps of receivers led by Larry Fitzgerald who will be 34 by the first kickoff. David Johnson carried the offense last year with over 2,000 all-purpose yards but he can’t be relied on to duplicate that and if the Cards are to be a viable scoring threat, Arians will need to modify the passing schemes or the rapidly closing playoff window will slam shut.

They won’t get much help from the defense which had five starters defect to free agency including Calais Campbell who fortified the defensive front. It will be a stretch to try and compensate with rookies as the gap between the Cards and Seattle widens.

Barring major mishap, the Seahawks should cruise to another West title but do they still have the stuff for postseason mayhem? If they intend to do more than show up for a game then exit the playoffs, Seattle has to get more consistent play from their offensive line. It has been a festering sore for several years leading to a lackluster ground game and headaches for Russell Wilson. It finally started to wear on Wilson who managed to improvise and still keep the Hawks relevant, but his athleticism is increasingly being compromised as running quarterbacks eventually pay a cost. The hope is that leaden Luke Joeckel can step in and provide an upgrade over basketball player George Fant. Yes, the situation became so dire Seattle had to go outside the sport to find someone to block. But Joeckel who managed to play in just four games for the Jaguars, had bad knees and gets knocked over by strong defenders. Beyond him it is shuffling this one here and there and hoping for the best.

To muster any kind of ground attack, there are hopes that lumbering Eddie Lacy doesn’t create a pastry shortage in Puget Sound and can stay healthy. Eddie never saw a bakery he didn’t like and that was in Green Bay, maybe the Seattle folks can stuff him with seafood and they can call him ” Omega 3 Eddie.” Fortunately the much-heralded receiving group led by Doug Baldwin, does enough in tandem with Wilson to supply enough offense to complement the deluxe defense.

The front seven led by all-world linebacker Bobby Wagner is the equal of any in the NFL. The secondary is starting to fray just a little and no longer has the quality spare parts. When safety Earl Thomas hit the disability line late last season, there was no suitable replacement and the defense suffered accordingly.

The Seahawks are still the best in the West but there are more question marks than usual. There was also a peculiar free agent signing on the kicking deck. Blair Walsh sounds like something out of a horror movie and he kicks field goals like it. He is just awful and the Vikings were happy to part with him.

Special teams won’t capsize Seattle in the division race but become critical against quality opponents. Arizona will check in at a distant second while the Niners and Rams roll around near the basement.

The Mule doesn’t want to be caught with the refrigerator bare as the preseason commences so he is rolling over to Sauders for a mega-sub and some pizza and bologna and sugar-free almond chocolate. And as always, a closing quote from the fan base: ” Remember, someone trying to give you free tickets to a Rams game is not a real friend.”